Traditional Navajo Churro sheep returning thanks to Turquoise Room Chef

Oldest livestock breed in North America once almost extinct now coming back

"Locally grown arugala topped with sliced leg of lamb that has been marinated in desert herbs: white sage; mint; three-leaf sumac; garlic and cracked juniper berries. Topped with a sherry wine vinegar laced lamb jus vinaigrette," read one of the menu items created by John Sharpe for a special event at the Turquoise Room at La Posada last week.

This most popular dish was only five dollars! Granted it was relatively small ­ it was neither a pile of burger'n cheese that can be found most elsewhere at the same price.

The dinner prepared by Sharpe also had many other items on the menu for attendees to choose from. It was part of a fundraiser for the Navajo­Churro Sheep Association.

The NCSA is celebrating its 20-year anniversary. The Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University organized the event in Winslow in conjunction with the Navajo Show at the Museum of Northern Arizona. There Sharpe gave a lamb preparation demonstration and Navajos sheered sheep for audiences.

"I've been on the advisory council of the SCE for over 5 years," Sharpe said. "I've also been an advocate for locally grown foods for almost 40 years now."

When Sharpe opened up the Turquoise Room in the La Posada ­ the two are separately operated ­ Gary Nabhan, director of the SCE, approached Sharpe about purchasing traditional agricultural products from local tribes. Currently, the Turquoise Room offers Tohono O'Odham grown tepary beans, Navajo-Churro lamb, and many of their vegetables are purchased from regional farmers in Glendale and around the Verde and Chino Valleys. Sometimes Winslow residents will have some vegetables and herbs to bring to Sharpe for use in the restaurant. He calls his style of food Regional Contemporary Southwestern ­ "with an occasional tribute to the great days of the Fred Harvey Company."

Sharpe has been working with a few Navajos who raise Churro lamb for about three and a half years now to bring this species to the attention of fine food connoisseurs from around the world to locals down the street.

"One of the purposes with offering the Churro is to create a brand recognition in the market," Sharpe said. "With emphasis on regional species identification within the Little Colorado River Valley area to create an exclusive entity out of the Churro. This will help bring real value to the farmers."

By creating a high value and popularity for Churro meat and wool, the increased prices will encourage those farmers, especially on the reservation, to increase their Churro livestock herds. This is important for regional tribal economic development and preservation of the sheep and the accompanying culture that has been on the brink of extinction, but may now come back if people support it.

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado first brought Churro and Merino sheep over from Spain in 1540 during their expeditions into the heart of the Southwest. Fifty-eight years later, Juan de Onate led another Spanish expedition that brought additional 5,000 Churros into the area.

"The Navajo-Churro sheep is the oldest North American farm animal breed," said Donald Bixby, research and technical program manager for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Bixby came all the way over from North Carolina to meet with locals interested in Churro and to eat at the Turquoise Room. He said it was not his first time there, as he and his wife stop in to eat whenever they return the Four Corners area.

"Every culture is a product of what is on the table and how it got there. The American heritage is based on a history of immigration over 10,000 years. We must preserve that culture by promoting and enjoying the foods offered at our table by generations of hunters, gatherers, farmers, and food artisans," Bixby said. "To conserve this genetic treasure, these historic breeds must be rediscovered in our cuisine."

He said many rare breeds of livestock and poultry have become rare because they do not respond well to the challenges of industrial food production. Species like the Churro however, are well suited to low-input, forage-based, and multi-purpose traditional production systems.

When the Churro was first introduced to North America, they immediately adapted to the climate and landscape. The Navajo incorporated the Churro as if they had been waiting for the species to arrive since they were said to have first emerged into this world.

The Churro is more than sacred to Navajo culture. It has great practical functions for the tribe who more than just eating the meat, used the now highly sought after wool for making blankets and clothing. Observers have also noted that the Churro eats unwanted weeds, reduces forest fire risk, and improves soil quality.

Back in 1846 ­ over half a million Churro sheep grazed between the San Juan River between Utah and Arizona and the Gila River in eastern Arizona. Over three million Churros existed overall, primarily around the Chuska Mountains in Arizona's northeastern corner on Navajo land. Enter the US military.

Between 1863 ­ 1866, the Navajos where rounded up and marched into Fort Sumner in Bosque Redondo, New Mex. After a treaty was struck and the tribe returned to their lands, they found their Churro herds killed and peach trees destroyed. Only about 1100 Churros remained hidden on Navajo Mountain.

The following years gave way to the government's introductions of many other species sheep that usually did not include the Churro. Eventually in the mid-30s the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the US Dept. of Agriculture began working to preserve the Churro with the Navajo, but then the Dust Bowl commenced.

It was thought that sheep grazing was causing some of the ecological damage of the times, so in 1933, BIA Superintendent John Collier and the Soil Conservation Service ordered a mandatory reduction of Navajo livestock.

The estimated 1.1 million Churro were reduced to 60,000 as they too were rounded up, shot and buried in mass pits. Further pressure from the drought and then the Great Depression caused many Navajo, Pueblo, Hispanic and Anglo families in the sheep business to simply give up.

By 1965, the Churro was down to 820 sheep, but animal enamored new characters of the time that took them on as a project to save this persevering species. These new generations discovered the fine quality of the meat and desirable wool.

With Churro herds again up to 5000, markets and restaurants in Mexico that supply Churro meat are having trouble keeping up with demand. Unrefined wool has recently sold for $12 per pound with handspun wool going for up to $96 per pound.

Sharpe and the Turquoise Room at La Posada in Winslow, is now on the forefront, promoting a Churro market in the US to help bring back the herd numbers and increase economic opportunity for Navajos.

Sharpe said that what he serves is different that what people conventionally associate to as mutton which comes from the older of the sheep. Lamb, the younger of the Churro, is lean, delicate and sweet. The Churro is not fatty either because the fat develops around the organs and not the tissues.

"People who come into the restaurant say that the lamb we prepare is amazing," Sharpe said. "People from around the world who are used to eating lamb and mutton say that it is the best they ever had and wonder where we got it."

Sharpe must have his Churro providers deliver them to a game processor in Perkinsville, Ariz., where he also must drive out of his way to pick the product up.

"It is an arduous task, but as long as we can get Navajos to produce the lamb, we'll keep on creating a market for it," Sharpe said.

He also works with groups like the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association, CSE, ALBC, Slow Food USA and Dine' Be 'iina', to make sure the Churro lambs are treated and raised in such as way that they meet certain standards.

"Heritage Foods provides an excellent opportunity to reconnect consumers with these culinary delights and support the conservation of these agricultural treasures. We wish them every success," Bixby said.

Comments

Comments are not posted immediately. Submissions must adhere to our Use of Service Terms of Use agreement. Rambling or nonsensical comments may not be posted. Comment submissions may not exceed a 200 word limit, and in order for us to reasonably manage this feature we may limit excessive comment entries.

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.